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Wednesday 12 October 2011

Football – A Question of Culture

I have to admit my interest in football (soccer) is next to nil but my interest in education is long standing.

Last night Spain played Scotland in the last qualifying match for the competition to be held in Poland and the Ukraine in 2012. The Spanish team won this as they have won each of their qualifying matches and Scotland failed to qualify.

Any personal interest of mine involved my two and a half year-old grandson. His Spanish father – his mother is half Scottish – thought this might be a good time to introduce him to football. On one side he had a point.

But the match set me thinking. 25 years ago both Spanish and Scottish teams were at the World Cup in Mexico. The Scots as usual did not get through the early stages. The Spanish did, but then ‘choked’. It was what they did. In every international competition Spain would hope and then crumble. In 1986 a Spain-Scotland match was not immediately a Spanish win.

How to explain the subsequent Spanish improvements and worsening Scottish inabilities? Actually, it’s not that difficult.

The Spanish school their players. I once heard one of the teachers explain that the young prospects were taught how to be polite, how to use a knife and fork if necessary, indeed taught everything they needed from financial savvy to how to give interviews.

At one level this is the Barcelona set-up in which young players are brought up on ‘la granja’ – the farm. It’s not Orwellian. And the training concentrates on the basics. Ball control, precise passing, moving to receive a pass, acquiring fast feet and, when needed, very fast ball. The other two important but simple lessons are a) - if you have the skills to keep the ball the other team don’t have it and b) - you really are part of a team.

Two examples. Yesterday Scottish players had difficulty ‘cushioning’ the ball on their chests. Instead the ball bounced off out of reach. This is basic. The other was when a player called Goodwillie blasted the ball into the crowd when a simple pass to another player would have been a tap in goal.

Awareness from the players that they are in a team is vital to Spanish success. It’s not that all the players are phenomenally talented. But they all know what to do and there are at least three players for every position.

In other words truly talented players (the Argentine Messi for example) come along rarely but considerable degrees of competence are available to any nation that bothers to learn from a system – and yes, improve on it.

Teamwork also removes some of the pressure on individuals. It seems to work.

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